The Cardinal’s Blades and L’Alchimiste des Ombres by Pierre Pevel

Over at Strange Horizons, Kari Sperring reviews Pierre Pevel‘s The Cardinal’s Blades (translated from the French by Tom Clegg) and L’Alchimiste des Ombres (in the original), discussing the two novels and focusing on issues of translation:

read Blades in both French and English; L’Alchimiste in French only. Tom Clegg’s translation is clean and clear throughout, if occasionally a little flat. This is arguably not his fault: Pevel employs idioms which do not always work as well in English. “Impassive” simply does not have quite the same texture as “rester de marbre.” Pevel is—like Dumas—a sometimes florid writer, and his style can look overblown in English “her emerald green eyes, in which burned a cold flame” (p. 13). The English edition is a good read: entertaining and colourful and pacey.

However, reading the two editions in parallel drew my attention to something that is frequently invisible to a reader: the editing. The English edition expunges the prologue of Lames. This means that the book opens with a long scene of Richelieu at work and slightly undermines the first appearance of Madame de Malicorne. (The prologue describes the bloody ritual by which she retains her youthful human form, in a scene very reminiscent of the high coloured, melodramatic but hugely fun opening of Dumas’s Count Cagliostro). The removal of the prologue does not affect the plot of Blades, but if repeated with L’Alchimiste will create some confusion, especially with the end of the book. Apart from the prologue, there are no large omissions, but a number of sentences have been removed. Sometimes it can be seen why: places where the text is perhaps repetitive or something is overexplained. On the other hand, on p. 29, we read, “It was common to breakfast in the morning, dine at midday and eat supper in the evening.” This looks rather facile: why has the author told us this? Here, in comparison is the French: “À cette époque, on déjeuner le matin, diner à midi et soupait le soir” (At that time, one ate breakfast in the morning, dined at midday and had supper in the evening,” Lames, p. 34.) It is a tiny difference, but the French adds something to Pevel’s picture of the seventeenth century. The English does not.

Such changes are not serious, but they can be irritating, and, for me, at least, added nothing to the pace of the story. In places, too, the omission of part-sentences damages the rhythm and rather flattens the prose. In English, the opening of chapter 23 reads, “Sitting at the table in an empty tavern, whose keeper was sweeping the floor at the end of a very long day, the Gascon was glowering into the bottom of his glass . . . ” (p. 110). Fair enough, but it requires the reader to remember that “the Gascon” is Marciac, who we haven’t seen for twenty pages: in between we have had an exciting chapter following Saint-Lucq into the stews of Paris and another establishing something important about Leprat. The French opening reads, “Marciac, maussade, avait bu. Attablé dans une taverne déserte . . . .” This establishes who we are now following and tells us something of his mood (dismal). I cannot see why this was cut: it creates confusion and spoils the rhythm. The most irritating decision, for me at least, is around names. Why leave the “è” in Agnès, a name that is familiar and easy to pronounce in English, but omit it from Almadès, who becomes Almades throughout? Almadès is the sole non-French member of the Blades: he’s a Spaniard. The name has a foreign ring in French—Al-ma-des, not, as might be expected, “Al-mad.” This is minor, but it is also curious. Names are one of Pevel’s strengths: Almadès is a Dumas reference (one of Aramis’s pseudonyms is the duke of Alméda). Malicorne is another reference (to a character who appears in Louise de la Vallière): it is also a word-play (licorne is unicorn) and Madame de Malicorne sports a unicorn brooch. Gagnière has overtones of “winner.” And there is a street bravo with the wonderful, self-selected name of “Malencontre.” He is indeed bad to meet. – read the rest of the review.


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